By now, we all know the golden rule for summer safety: apply sunscreen. Often. But did you know that you should also moderate your alcohol intake—especially while soaking up the sun?
With the longer days and warmer weather, summertime has become synonymous with travel and adventure, gatherings and reunions, as well as celebrations among friends and family. For many, that can mean knocking back a few drinks. After all, there’s nothing quite as refreshing as a cold beer on a hot day.
But sun exposure and heat can magnify the effects of alcohol consumption. If overdone, drinking alcohol can negatively impact your physical and mental faculties—interfering with your balance, coordination, and judgement—and decrease your inhibitions. This means that only a cocktail or two can put you at risk during hot-weather activity.
With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the clinically proven health risks and dangers associated with alcohol consumption in combination with sun and heat exposure.
Drinking alcohol can increase your skin’s sensitivity and vulnerability to sunlight. In a small German study involving healthy men, researchers investigated the amount of ultraviolet (UV) light it would take to burn skin following alcohol consumption. They found that, after drinking about three alcoholic beverages, the amount of UV light needed to burn the skin was significantly reduced. Overall, alcohol consumption increased the risk of sunburn development and severity. The researchers hypothesized that the sunburn acceleration may be due to the lower levels of carotenoids that study participants exhibited following alcohol intake, the depletion of which may make the skin more prone to the sun’s effects.
Exposure to UV radiation from the sun is the primary risk factor for melanoma—the fifth leading cancer in US men and women—and drinking alcohol increases this risk. As mentioned earlier, alcohol can hasten sunburn, and frequent sunburns, especially those which occur during childhood, can raise the risk of melanoma. In a systematic review and dose-risk meta-analysis of 16 studies, researchers found that the combination of sun exposure and drinking alcohol was positively correlated with the risk of cutaneous melanoma. Specifically, individuals who drank moderate-to-high doses of alcohol had a 20% increased risk for developing this disease compared with those who drank occasionally or did not drink at all.
Dehydration and heat illness
Both alcohol and the sun can cause dehydration. The sun causes your body to sweat in order to stay cool, and if those fluids aren’t replaced, your body will undergo adverse reactions. You may feel extremely thirsty, dizzy, or fatigued. Prolonged dehydration can increase your risk of a heat injury—including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and the more fatal heat stroke—if you stay in the sun too long. Thus, it’s important to stay hydrated—just not with alcohol.
As both a diuretic and vasodilator, alcohol can interfere with your body's thermoregulation capabilities, making you feel warmer and more susceptible to blacking out.
When people drink, they tend to become more lackadaisical and reckless, which can have extremely dangerous implications when water recreation or water sports are involved. In fact, up to 70% of all water recreation deaths of teens and adults involve alcohol consumption. If you are drinking in or near a body of water, be aware that you may lack the dexterity needed to stay afloat, which can increase your risk of drowning—the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide (and fifth in the United States). Sun and heat exposure only amplifies this risk.
In addition, the physical exertion of swimming on a hot day paired with alcohol consumption can lead to overheating—a risk factor for heat syncope (fainting)—which can have deadly consequences.
Boating accidents are also another major concern. In 2017, the United States Coast Guard reported 4,291 boating accidents that involved 658 deaths, with alcohol as the leading known contributing factor.
According to Boat US Foundation: “Stressors, such as exposure to noise, vibration, sun, glare, wind and the motion of the water, affects boat operators and passengers, thus making drinking while boating even more dangerous than drinking and driving. Research shows that hours of exposure to boating stressors produces a kind of a fatigue, or ‘boater's hypnosis,’ which slows reaction time almost as much as if you were legally drunk. Adding alcohol or drugs to boating stress-factors intensifies their affects—each drink multiplies your accident risk.”
Tips for summer safety
- Drink water—even if you aren’t thirsty. If you’re hanging out all day at the beach or at a barbecue, you should try to limit your alcohol intake. But if you choose to indulge, alternate your alcoholic drinks with low-sodium fluids, such as water or sports drinks, or any of these hydrating foods.
- Pace yourself. Because summer drinking tends to take place at social gatherings, it’s easy to lose sight of how many cocktails you may have had, which can easily lead to intoxication and heat illness. So, on the more sultry days, less is really more.
- Know your limits when it comes to alcohol consumption and activities. Because alcohol can impair judgement and promote risk-taking, swimmers and surfers may misjudge distance, the strength of the current, or their own abilities. Boaters should also have a sober designated driver at all times.
- Take extra precautions. If you know you are going to be drinking and out in the sun for a long period of time, consider these other safety measures: Wear a life jacket when out on the water, eat and drink more frequently, and apply and reapply sunscreen every 2 hours.